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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS American: Detroit vs. Minnesota : NOT ALL TALK : Twins Manager Tom Kelly Has Quietly Brought Minnesota Back Into Playoffs

October 06, 1987|THOMAS BONK | Times Staff Writer

When the Minnesota Twins clinched the American League's Western Division title last week against the Texas Rangers, a wild celebration among the players began on the field at Arlington Stadium. But in the Twins' dugout, it was soooo quiet.

Why? Because that's the way Tom Kelly likes it.

Kelly, the Twins' manager, remained on the bench and watched quietly, which isn't at all out of character for him. The youngest manager in the major leagues, 37-year-old Tom Kelly is fast establishing a reputation for himself.

He has been called a fledgling baseball genius, a players' manager, a great motivator and an extremely focused field leader.

Kelly also has been called rude, boring, obnoxious, short-tempered and one of the worst interviews in professional sports.

Here is a sample from a Kelly interview that lasted about three minutes:

Question: "Tom, you must know you're considered a very difficult person to interview."

Answer: "Yeah, and I've had enough of this one, too."

End of interview.

Maybe none of that matters. Certainly Kelly doesn't care whether he becomes a household name. What's wrong with bland? Being colorful may be overrated, because, after all, beige is a shade, too.

Winning ought to be enough, or so it seems to Kelly. But now, in the playoffs, spotlights are going to shine on Kelly and there is a chance they will illuminate a subject that has been standing with one foot firmly planted in the shadows.

Most everything known about him so far has been under his own tight control. In his second year as a big league manager, Kelly is already within sight of the World Series, which means he is a lot further along this season than such glib managers as Tom Lasorda, Pete Rose and Bobby Valentine.

To begin with, some of the Kelly story is about numbers. Under Kelly, the Twins had the best home record (56-25) in the major leagues. That was almost but not quite overshadowed by their 29-52 road record, the second-worst in the American League. Each time the Twins got pounded on the road, though, they bounced back. Such resiliency was to Kelly's credit, according to Andy MacPhail, the club's executive vice president in charge of baseball, a fancy way of saying general manager.

"In today's day and age, the most important thing a manager can do is to get players to play hard, day in and day out," MacPhail said. "The manager has to get the most out of his players that he can. We kept coming back from some pretty horrific road trips and I think Tom was responsible to a large degree because he fostered and nurtured a winning attitude."

For years, the Twins had a real attitude problem. Minnesota last won a division title in 1970. At that time, the big names on the team were Harmon Killebrew, who hit 41 home runs, and Tony Oliva, who batted .325. It was also five years before a 24-year-old left-handed hitting first baseman-outfielder named Tom Kelly came up for his only shot at the major leagues.

Kelly played in 49 games and hit .181. After such a season it was pretty clear that if Kelly wanted to stay in the majors, it would have to be as something other than a player.

He went back to the minors--first as a player, then as a player-manager and finally as a manager--and didn't return to the big leagues until 1983, when then-manager Billy Gardner hired him to coach third base.

Gardner, who was fired after the 1985 season, was replaced by Ray Miller, who was fired the next season with only 23 games left. To the surprise of some, Kelly was named interim manager. To the surprise of many, he signed a one-year contract, which was renewed Monday.

For reasons both political and financial last year, Kelly was the second choice of owner Carl Pohlad.

Pohlad wanted a manager with experience to replace Miller. Jim Frey, fired by the Chicago Cubs, was at the top of Pohlad's list and was offered the dual job of executive vice president and manager.

Under that arrangement, MacPhail, then 33 and vice president in charge of player personnel, would have reported to Frey. MacPhail quickly put himself in Kelly's corner.

"I was motivated purely by the interests of the organization and frankly, my own self-interests," MacPhail said. "(Kelly) certainly was my first choice."

Frey, however, told Pohlad he didn't want to be a general manager, although he would consider the manager's job. When he asked for a contract of at least three years, and the Twins wouldn't budge from two, Kelly's fragile situation began getting stronger by the minute. So did MacPhail's.

Pohlad finally agreed to sign Kelly to a one-year contract and promoted MacPhail to executive vice president, but only after Ralph Houk was brought in as a vice president to keep an eye on the youngsters, Kelly, then 36, and MacPhail.

MacPhail says he did not consider the hiring of Kelly a gamble, despite Kelly's lack of major league managing experience.

"Everybody has got to start somewhere," MacPhail said. "I don't think it'll be that long before Tom Kelly gets name recognition."

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